Literature and Orthodox Culture

This post is part of a synchroblog by the Orthobloggers. See links to others participating at the end of the post.

Culture can, and does, mean many different things—anything from the entire socio-politico-religio-artistic milieu of a society, to those high art productions like ballet and opera that Average Joe wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot basketball goal. For a couple of reasons, I’m not going to attempt to tackle the former:

  1. It’s beyond my scope. I’m not an informed student of sociology or politics, and when it comes to religion and arts other than my own, I mostly just know what I like.
  2. It’s nonsensical to talk about an “Orthodox culture” in that first sense in any Western country. In fact, I’m not sure there’s any country in the world where it currently makes sense, because the Orthodox underpinnings of society have been eroded by persecution and secularism almost everywhere. You can’t have an “Orthodox culture” unless you have a predominantly Orthodox population—and maybe not even then.

I’m also not going to talk about ballet or opera or painting, not because I don’t enjoy them, but because they’re not my field.

I’m a writer, so I’m going to talk about Orthodox culture in the context of literature.

To some people—probably the same Average Joes and Janes who shun ballet and opera—”literature” is a dirty word. It conjures images of dusty tomes whose content is as dry as the ancient paper they’re printed on. It revives unpleasant memories of stern high school English teachers who apparently believed they could make students love Dickens and Melville by telling them all the reasons they should. It’s epitomized by scholars like the (possibly fictional) one who wrote the introduction to the poetry text in Dead Poets Society, which suggested a poem’s worth could be determined by plotting its scores for skill of composition and significance of theme on a graph.

These people, if they read at all, don’t want “literature”; they want stories. The more action-packed, the more like a movie translated to print, the better.

From my point of view, literature simply consists of the best stories of all time dressed up in their best Sunday clothes. Also from my point of view, the best stories of all time are those through which eternal truth shines most brightly.

By this I do not mean stories that contain a “salvation message” or that depict nice Christian people going about their nice Christian lives. I mean stories like Perrault’s Cinderella. Anna Karenina. Crime and Punishment. Lord of the Rings. Till We Have Faces. Bleak House. Mansfield Park. The Way We Live Now. East of Eden. Peace Like a River. The Wind in the Willows. Harry Potter. Stories in which good is rewarded, evil is punished, and sinful people and a sinful world are redeemed by acts of heroism, sacrifice, and love.

If Orthodox Christianity is the purveyor of eternal truth to mankind, then Orthodox culture as embodied in literature refers to books like these. If we want Orthodox culture to flourish in the contemporary West, we need to do all we can to produce and encourage books like these.

If we are writers, we need to write them. If we are publishers, we need to publish them. If we are readers, we need to buy them and read them.

I could with little difficulty count a dozen or so Orthodox writers who are currently writing excellent fiction but cannot find anyone to publish it. It’s “too religious” for general market publishers, too sacramental and incarnational for “Christian” (read evangelical) publishers. And (putting on my editor hat for a moment) it seems for the time being too financially risky for Orthodox publishers who have built up a somewhat shaky business based on nonfiction. Orthodox bookstores don’t know what to do with it, they don’t have a shelf for it, so they don’t buy it.

If the rapidly growing Orthodox population of the West wants Orthodox culture in the form of literature, it’s going to have to put its money where its mouth is. It’s going to have to start clamoring for—and buying—good works of fiction by Orthodox authors (and those who share our fundamental point of view).

There’s an old saying among Orthodox: You get the priest you deserve.

There’s a new saying that’s equally true: You get the culture you deserve.

Other blogs participating in this synchroblog:


12 comments on “Literature and Orthodox Culture

  1. […] Hyde of God Haunted Fiction on Literature and Orthodox Culture   Click here to cancel […]

  2. “If Orthodox Christianity is the purveyor of eternal truth to mankind, then Orthodox culture as embodied in literature refers to books like these. If we want Orthodox culture to flourish in the contemporary West, we need to do all we can to produce and encourage books like these.” I see where you are coming from, Katherine, but I wonder if there isn’t also room for Orthodox Christians who are writers (like me) but who don’t have such a vision for our work? My ten published essays and the novel I am currently revising are all attempts at creating art. For art’s sake. Not with any view of helping Orthodox culture flourish in the contemporary West. And I wonder if the authors of those great works of literature you sited had any religious agendas, or if they simply wrote for the sake of art. I know this may sound like I’m beating a dead horse with this issue of “Christian/Orthodox literature” vs. “Christians/Orthodox who write,” but it’s important to me to keep the distinction. Perhaps, because of the topic for this blog post, you are only addressing the former, but still acknowledge the latter? Thanks for a thoughtful post.

    • Katherine Hyde says:

      Susan, I’m on your side of the semantic debate you reference. I did not mean to imply that the writers I mention wrote with a religious agenda. The Orthodox writers I know don’t all write with a religious agenda either, but their Orthodoxy comes through in their writing. What I meant to say is that any literature that reflects an Orthodox worldview—intentionally or unintentionally—is, willy-nilly, a contribution to the creation of an Orthodox culture. A culture (in the sense of art) that glorifies God. It’s my belief that all art of excellence created by someone who loves the good will glorify God.

  3. Steve says:

    There’s that NaNoWroMo thing, which challenges people to write a 50000 word novel in a month. I once (more than once, actually) challenged Charles Williams and Inklings fans to write a novel in the genre of Charles Williams. There were no takers. But if we want to read the kind of books we like, then someone has to write them, and, as you say, someone has to publish them.

    • Katherine Hyde says:

      Steve, I’ve read a manuscript of a Williams-esque novel by another Orthodox writer. It was way longer than could be finished in NanNoWriMo, though, and when I saw it still needed some work. Cool idea, though.

  4. Grace says:

    I totally agree with what you’re saying. Increasingly as I get older, I find that there are books that make me feel like a stronger and more able-bodied Christian that may not have an overtly Christian storyline. (Your list above contains good examples.) The problem for Christians right now is that things have fallen off so badly that there is hardly an Orthodox-shaped hole into which the Truth can blossom. That’s what I think ‘God-haunted literature’ (great expression!) could do.

    I wonder how we break in. I wonder if there is a window of opportunity in the realm of e-publishing. Without the prohibitive cost of printing, publishers might take more chances and readers might do the same. What do you think?

    • Katherine Hyde says:

      Grace, I think e-publishing is the way to go, and I am cooking up some ideas/plans in that direction. Stay tuned!

  5. Jon Kotinek says:

    Katherine, I agree with your concept that “orthodox culture” can conscript any art that elevates the human soul and points it toward God. BP. Kallistos Ware has a great quote to that effect that I read in Madeline L’Engle’s Walking on Water. For a wonderful, in-depth exploration of how good/evil, heroism and sacrifice tie into unintentionally-Christian literature, I recommend John Granger’s (Orthodox himself) Looking for God in Harry Potter.

    All of the literature you listed strikes me as classic, and I can see how a genre like magical realism might be successfully used to advance a Christian culture. Your post made me wonder: could postmodern literature (which complicates or dismantles the “master narrative”) be employed similarly?

    • Katherine Hyde says:

      Jon, I’ve read some excellent magical realism from a Christian perspective–Alton Gansky’s The Opposite of Art, which I reviewed on this blog a while back. Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (written by a believing Jew) is also tremendously uplifting, although it also has some sleazy bits. My own unpublished fiction has elements of magical realism. Some people might put Peace Like a River in that category too, since it’s full of miracles. “Miraculous realism” might be a better term.

      Postmodern is trickier, I think, because it’s usually based on a fundamental cynicism about the nature of reality. But there’s probably some writer out there brilliant enough to turn that on its head and pull it off. 🙂

  6. Good literature has a timeless quality, like Truth.

    I had to laugh when I read that some people consider “literature” a dirty word! I know a few students who feel that way. I wonder how much of that comes from being made to read junk in the schools?

    • Katherine Hyde says:

      Alice, these days, kids do have to read junk in the schools. But back when I was in high school, they fed us good stuff. I think the problem then lay in poor teaching methods and also in trying to give kids material they weren’t ready for yet. Regardless of one’s reading level and even maturity, there are some books you have to have a certain amount of life experience to appreciate. I didn’t get into Steinbeck until I was in my 30s, for example. And then I loved him.

  7. Jon Kotinek says:

    Katherine, I actually ordered two copies of The Opposite of Art based on your review (one for me and another for a non-Christian artist friend of mine). I’m looking forward to reading it.

    I agree that the inherent cynicism in postmodernism would make it tricky (if not impossible) to reconcile to Truth. The way I could imagine it happening would be for the story to lead to a conclusion that cannot eliminate the possibility of Truth, even if it cannot be apprehended by us. I would see that as sort of an apophatic conclusion.

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